What is ‘chained CPI?’

December 17, 2012

When President Obama tried to reach a comprehensive bargain with Republicans to pay down the federal deficit last year, he floated the idea of changing the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security benefits from the traditional consumer price index to something called a chained Consumer Price Index, or “chained CPI.”

Economics and policymakers generally make the assumption that when prices rise, people will turn to a less expensive product. They’ll buy chicken instead of more expensive beef, iceberg lettuce instead of arugula, store-brand, instead of name-brand cereal. The chained CPI attempts to account for how people react to inflated prices.

It’s an arcane detail in the ongoing budget debate, but the chained CPI is appealing to budget experts and some Republicans and Democrats, because it only slightly tweaks the inflation formula, while building significant savings over time, perhaps more than $100 billion over a decade.

Making such a change also means paying out less in Social Security benefits over time — something liberal Democrats can’t stomach. Imagine, for example, a person born in 1935 who retired to full benefits at age 65 in 2000. People in that position had an average initial monthly benefit of $1,435, or $17,220 a year, according to the Social Security Administration. Under the cost-of-living-adjustment formula and 2012 inflation, that benefit would be up to $1,986 a month in 2013, or $23,832 a year. But if payouts were adjusted using chained CPI, the sum would be around $1,880 a month, or $22,560 a year — a cut of more than 5 percent and more as the years go by.

As for taxes, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has calculated that most Americans would pay a little more than $100 more per year. Families making between $30,000 and $40,000 a year would see the biggest increases — almost six times that faced by millionaires — but that’s because upper-income Americans are already in the top bracket and not being pushed into higher marginal rates because of changing bracket thresholds.

All told, chained CPI would lead to a larger across-the-board cut in Social Security benefits and a 0.19 percent income surtax, according to experts. Those changes could make the proposal politically unpalatable for some, which is why some budget watchdog groups have argued that the only fair way to implement such a change would be to couple it with an increase in Social Security benefits and to exempt Supplemental Security Income, which provides support for impoverished elderly, disabled and blind people.

Will lawmakers unveil some kind of proposal using chained CPI and other adjustments in federal benefits emerge in the coming days to help strike a deal? Stay tuned.

Dylan Matthews contributed to this report.

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Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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